I’m really tired and have to be up early tomorrow morning. But I feel like I want a second bite of the apple for the points I might not have expressed well in this post. The “systemic failures” President Obama described in Hawaii today concerning how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 are not intelligence failures. They’re not failures to connect any dots. They’re policy decisions. And to make matters much more complicated, they’re based on some rather sound decisions.
Nothing Obama revealed today — and he didn’t say much that we didn’t already know; so maybe it’s better to talk about what Obama confirmed today — changes the basic picture. The U.S. embassy in Abuja, last month, got information from Abdulmutallab’s father that the young man was a potential threat. Embassy officials put that information into a very large database called TIDE. As they were supposed to. But that information was insufficient, according to an agreed-upon interagency standard of “specific derogatory information leading to reasonable suspicion,” to either revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa or place him on the much-narrower no-fly list. Those are policy decisions. In other words, this isn’t a case of insufficient information, unless we want to say that we should have had penetrated his plot in Yemen — which, while emotionally satisfying, is not particularly realistic. It’s a case of not properly matching a policy response to the available information.
I’m so old that I can remember when, in 2006, CBS ran a piece about how many thousands of people were on the no-fly list for what seemed like hysterical and paranoid reasons. There’s a common-sense failure with Abdulmutallab: it is very clear in retrospect he should not have been on that plane. If we decide as the result of that common-sense failure that we want to restrict the standard for either visa revocation or placement on the no-fly — which, realistically, will both imply additional government surveillance and targeting — fine. But then don’t complain about such itchy-trigger finger no-fly placement or a move to restricting foreigners’ access to American soil. How much hearsay — or, perhaps more accurately, how little — should be required to keep someone out of the U.S.?
I’m not saying a better balance can’t be struck. I’m saying it’s a balance. And right now, the very understandable fear that someone can slip through and kill people on an airplane is inclining us to tip the scales in the opposite direction. If that’s where we’re going as a country, let’s be open about it and debate it thoroughly. I’m not pretending the answer is an easy one to derive, and both Cynthia and Scott made good comments in the earlier post that I’m going to think about after I finally get some sleep.